What It Means To Be An American On Independence Day

A long day of travel in order to celebrate our nation’s independence with family and friends, but I want to end it with a very short post that captures a bit of what I think it means, on this July 4th, to be an American.   Our national identity is not a function of a particular religion, or race, or ethnicity or even an ideology.  It does not depend on one’s birthplace (even those born in Kenya can be American [although not President]!), language, or nationality.  To be an American, instead, is to accept a set of political values.  What are those values?  Thomas Jefferson, who died 126 years ago today, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (who could have scripted that?), wrote in that document these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  When he wrote those words, Jefferson came as close as anyone to defining what it means to be an American: a shared belief that all Americans are equal, but that they  also possess an inalienable right to liberty as a means to pursuing individual happiness. Liberty and equality and the rule of law under the Constitution that establishes the form of the Government whose powers are derived from the consent of the governed – those are the values that define what it means to be an American.  If you embrace those values, you are an American – regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity or religion.

And herein lies the crux of the American dilemma – in their purest form, equality and liberty are in tension.  Neither ideal can be fully achieved without endangering the other. This creates, as Samuel Huntington notes in his classic work The Promise of Disharmony, a gap between our ideals and what American government, based on the consent of the governed, can reasonably hope to accomplish. This gap means that Americans are inevitably dissatisfied with what our government does.  Consider the debate over the individual mandate – a key component of Obamacare.  Those who value liberty recoil against a government policy that forces us to either buy health insurance or pay a tax…er….penalty if we refuse to do so.  It is an infringement on individual liberty.  But for those who believe in equality, the mandate is necessary to insure that all Americans, regardless of wealth, have access to a minimal level of health care.  Faced with these competing ideals, no governmental policy – as Chief Justice Roberts has found out – will satisfy all, or even most, Americans.

How do we reconcile this inherent tension in the American creed?  Which value is paramount? The short answer is that we, as Americans, have decided to pursue both values simultaneously. That is the essence of the American experience which began in 1776, with Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and continues through today. So far, we have managed to balance, if not reconcile, the inherent tension in the values that identify us as Americans without tearing the polity asunder. We embrace both liberty and equality.  And when we perceive a tilt toward one value at the expense of the other, we recalibrate our national politics to reestablish an uneasy equilibrium.  It is an often messy process.  Indeed, at one point we fought a civil war to uphold both values.  It was in the midst of that epic struggle that Abraham Lincoln penned what I believe is the most succinct and memorable summary of what the American experiment is all about.  In November, 1963, Lincoln presented his immortal Gettysburg address, which began with a restatement of the fundamental values cited by Jefferson in the Declaration: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

After laying out the fundamental tenets of the American creed, and testifying to the valor of those who gave their lives to uphold those values, Lincoln finished with these words:

“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

That’s what I’m thinking about on Independence Day.

One comment

  1. I started my day by reading through the Declaration and every time I go to the Lincoln Memorial I stand there and read the Gettysburg Address – it’s one of my favorite speeches. It’s also nice to be reminded of that fundamental tension between liberty and equity; it’s a helpful frame through which to view past and current events. I used it in a blog piece just recently with regards to public education. Somehow we continue to maintain a balance and right ourselves, as part of that great unfinished work. It seems as though we’ll never actually ‘be finished,’ that it will always be an evolving experiment where success may be partially defined by that constant balancing act. Happy 4th!

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